Perhaps it was the fact that I’ve crossed several state lines recently. More likely it was because I’ve spent several late nights wide awake and coughing. Being sick can make you think weird things, but for some reason the following aphorism popped into my head…
There is a town called “Greenville” in every state. However, Tennessee is the only only one that spells it as “Greeneville.”
I don’t even remember where I heard that the first time. My first intent was to take this at face value and create a Google Earth KML file showing the location of each town called Greenville. (Did I mention that I’ve been sick lately?) That turned into a challenge to test the validity of this statement, and learn a bit more about Greenville, where ever it might be found.
As I said, it was late, and I couldn’t sleep. I was browsing through Google Earth when I started typing in “Greenville” followed by various state abbreviations. I hit one state and it returned no results. That’s when I realized that A) the aphorism is wrong, and B) there had to be a more efficient way of doing this.
I turned to my old friend, the Geonames GNIS Database maintained by the USGS. A quick query for cities with the name “Greenville” only returned 12 cities.
This is far short of the number needed for the quote above, so instead of the tag “civil” I included the phrase “populated place.” This upped the number to 92, but some of these were duplicates and didn’t really fit what I would consider to be a town or city.
Rather than click through to the maps one by one I decided to download the GNIS data and create a map file from there. I washed the data through a couple of queries and created this data set with 93 locations around the US. From there I was able to pop the spreadsheet into Google Fusion Tables and create the KML file.
As you can see, most of these are on the Eastern Seaboard, with only a few in the west.
So, the first part of the aphorism is false. But what about the second part, the bit about Greeneville, Tennessee? As far as I can tell from the GNIS data, that part is true. Although there are some other geographical place names with that spelling, the city in eastern Tennessee is the only one with an extra “e”. There are also a couple of “Grenvilles” in the US – one in New Mexico and one in South Dakota.
Many of these cities, including my hometown in South Carolina, were named for Revolutionary war hero Nathaneal Greene. That may account, in part, for the prevalence of names on the east coast. There are other variants of the name, and these can be found as other geographical place names such as streets, counties, etc.
“Green” is also a common geographic descriptor. Our own state has a “Greenwood” in addition to Greenville. In fact, there are about as many “Greenwoods” as there are “Greenvilles”. GNIS data lists 47 cities with this name, whereas it only came up with 12 for Greenville.
Just out of curiosity I checked the international name listings. It looks like there was one listing for Liberia, but most instances of the name “Greenville” are found in Ireland. Figures.
I’m still not sure of the source of the saying about Greenville being in all 50 states, but it seems to be a common idea. When I did a quick Google search, autocomplete finished my query with several variations of that statement. Askville on the Amazon.com site seemed to have the most concise answer. However, even there was some discussion as to the actual number of names.
So, the next time your see or hear this phrase, take it with a grain of salt. Perhaps if I had expanded it to any place name with the word “green” or variations thereof, it might be closer to the truth, but for right now I just don’t have the energy for that query.